The Allure of the Counterintuitive

It’s not enough for social science to inform: it must surprise

This month’s issue of the venerable Psychological Science includes a curious title: “Distraction Can Reduce Age-Related Forgetting.” The article describes a study in which college students and older adults (who averaged 68 years old) completed an unusual memory test. At first their task seemed straightforward enough: participants studied words in a list for three seconds each, and shortly thereafter attempted to recall them. As expected, the older adults didn’t do as well as the young adults—they were about a quarter less likely to recall any given word.

But then the participants completed additional tasks. Some were just intended as fillers—to fill time, that is, between more critical elements of the study. But in one task, participants watched as pictures flashed on a computer screen. They were instructed to look for instances in which two identical pictures appeared consecutively. Ignore, they were told, any words you may see superimposed on these pictures; focus only on the pictures.

Finally participants again attempted to recall the words they’d studied. This time, the results were different. Some of the words on the original test list had been superimposed on the pictures, and when it came to recalling these words, older adults did about as well as young adults. Why? The older adults, but not the college students, got a memory boost from the superimposed words—the words they’d been instructed to ignore. That is, the ease with which they were distracted allowed them to recall more words.

Now, I hesitate to pick on this study, because I don’t think it is bad. I would even go so far as to call its results interesting and its design elegant. It’s the strained rhetorical spin that gets to me. Older adults, did you know that harnessing your inner distractibility could do wonders for your ability to remember (distracting) information? Think about that!

But it is just this irksome spin that makes the study such fodder for the popular press. Indeed, had the researchers not spun it this way, the press (and, alas, I include bloggers like myself) might have done so for them. Why read “Social Connections Evoke a Variety of Strong Emotions” when you can read “What Makes Us Happy Can Make Us Sad“? Why click on “Intelligence No Cure-all for Cognitive Bias” when you can go to “Why Smart People Are Stupid”?

We love our counterintuitive findings. And for fields such as psychology, they’re almost a necessity. If new conclusions already gel with our beliefs, goes the common refrain, why was precious taxpayer money ever wasted on the study in the first place? (I find the prospect of a society populated by commenters on most social science articles chilling.) Never mind that because our beliefs are not immune to prevailing worldviews, what we find intuitive has almost certainly been shaped by the past observations of—you guessed it—social scientists. And never mind that despite the ease with which new findings morph into old news, many established psychological phenomena still aren’t intuitive.

The counterintuitive has its place. But our love affair comes at a cost. It leaves little room in the public consciousness for social scientific work that is incremental, for work that shores up and teases apart, for work that complicates, for work on the boundary conditions—those fragile social and mental habitats upon which decisions turn. In other words, it leaves little room for most of social science.

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Jessica Love holds a doctorate in cognitive psychology and edits Kellogg Insight at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management.


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